Portugal’s Social Democratic Party moved to criminalise verbal sexual abuse in February, an action which brought to light the lack of similar legislation against public harassment introduced (and enforced) by its European neighbours.
The UK is lagging behind, too; what we do have in the place of legislation specifically targeted against street harassment is section 66 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which ban exposing oneself to others in public and the knowledgeable harassment of another person respectively. But key to the Portuguese laws is the act of “formulating proposals of a sexual tenor” expressly now being a transgression, and the UK has nothing to tackle unwanted advances on par with this.
Public spaces are far from being free from sexual violence; women are almost universally subjected to strangers’ lewd comments or wolf-whistling as they drive by on an uncomfortably regular basis. These incidents, while invasive and irritating, don’t usually develop beyond that, but some offenders do impose on our personal space even further.
It’s not in the realm of rational thought to postulate that women find street harassment flattering; it’s a misogynistic intimidation tactic that leaves us fighting waves of dread and paranoia when walking home, hoping that we’ll be spared some creep making a pass at us. The non-profit Union of Women for Alternatives and Answers found that a majority of women had been verbally assaulted and that “both men and women confused sexual assault with seduction or praise”, a symptom of persistent deeply-rooted sexism.
Peru and Belgium have in recent years implemented similarly progressive laws, threatening fines and prison sentences for offenders; for legal purposes, Peru’s definition of harassment is that which impacts the freedom and dignity of movement or another person’s right to physical and moral integrity.
Portugal’s progress can be attributed to the endeavours of the woman-led ‘radical’ Left Bloc party; Peru and other Latin American states have similar backstories. But the movements in place at home lack the political influence to bring us these measures, debatably effective as they are, and until this changes, we’ll keep having to grit our teeth every time an unwelcome leer is tossed our way.